Stardust: a movie review


One day while Neil Gaiman was driving in England, he noticed a wall by the side of the road and imagined Faerie on the other side. He conceived the story of an American author visiting Britain who would discover the wall. Shortly after this, on the night he received a literary award, Gaiman saw a shooting star, and the idea for Stardust was born.

Stardust was first released as an illustrated series in 1997 and then as a novel in 1999, which won an award from the Mythopoetic Society.  A movie version in 2007 received favorable reviews.  After my recent review of Gaiman’s 2013 novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I realized I’d never seen the Stardust movie.  It’s available for rent on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Stardust gives us the wall, a wonderful metaphor for much of human culture, erected to keep us out of Faerie, the realm of imagination, heightened emotion, wonders, terrors, true love, and our true selves.

Responsible citizens don't cross the wall.

Responsible citizens don’t cross the wall.

Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the town of Wall, is a classic dummling.  He’s a klutz who can’t keep a job and is infatuated with Victoria, a girl who won’t take him seriously and whose finance delights in tormenting him.  Yet Tristan’s father, who has been over the wall, says that might be a good thing – most people who find it easy to fit in “lead unremarkable lives.”  Then he tells Tristan the secret of his birth on the other side of the wall.

Tristan and Victoria see a shooting star fall into Faerie.  Still infatuated, Tristan vows to bring the star back to win her hand in marriage.  He forces his way through the wall to begin his search, but he is not the only one who saw the star.

The murderous sons of a dying king in the realm of Stormhold set off to find the star when their father vows that the one who finds it will be his heir.  And Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), senior member of a trio of witches joins the hunt – when stars fall to earth, the witches cut out their hearts and eat them, a little at a time, to preserve their youth and beauty.

Tristan reaches Yvaine the star (Claire Daines) first. Still intent on winning the hand of Victoria back in Wall, he uses a Faire chain to compel her to follow him.

Yvaine and Tristan

Yvaine and Tristan

At first they bicker constantly, but their time on the road and helping each other survive attempts on their lives creates a bond of friendship and finally love between them. Ever the dummling, Tristan is the last to realize this, but is helped when he finds a mentor.  Robert De Niro, in a virtuoso role as Captain Shakespeare, the gay captain of a flying steampunk pirate ship, teaches Tristan to fight, Yvaine to dance, and with a parting gift of  wisdom, whispers to Tristan, “She is your true love.”

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

As with any good dummling story, the ending of Stardust will leave you happy.  Though rooted in the sensibility of a modern coming of age tale, with elements of character development that the old traditional stories lack, Stardust fits Tolkien’s paradigm of the classic fairytale – the wonders and terrors we mortals encounter when we venture into other worlds.

Faerie whispers to us in sunlight, in starlight, and in our dreams.  Those intimations may be what make us most truly human.  No wonder we have an endless appetite for wonder tales, and Stardust is one that thoroughly satisfies.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


I’ve loved fantasy since my earliest childhood days of hearing stories read aloud.  Growing up I lived on The Wind in the Willows, Godzilla, Norse mythology, science fiction, Frankenstein and the folklore of many cultures.  In college, I discovered Tolkien, The Odyssey, C.S. Lewis, as well as Jung and Campbell, who served as guides to the often trackless realms of the other worlds.

If you follow fantasy literature for any length of time, you notice that authors who bring forth new visions are often followed by scores of knockoffs by writers looking for bandwagons to ride.  Neil Gaiman is an exception to that rule; he sows his unique personal visions across traditional genres in a manner that can’t be imitated.

How would you follow the Hugo and Nebula award winning American Gods, 2001, a dark, modern day Iliad that pits old gods like Mr. Wednesday (Odin) against new deities like Media, the goddess of television?  A year later, Gaiman published Coraline, sometimes compared to Alice in Wonderland for its unflinching look at the terrors of childhood and winner of Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella.

Neil Gaiman, 2009, by Kyle Cassidy.  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Neil Gaiman, 2009, by Kyle Cassidy. CC-BY-SA-3.0

In June, Gaiman released The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which he called “the most serious, dark, weird and personal thing I’ve ever written” in an interview called “The Illusionist” in the June 24, 2013, issue of Time.     

Illusionist is the only possible title for the creator of Ocean, which began as a short story and grew.  You reach the end of a nail biting ride with a man recalling a summer of terror and beauty that happened (or probably happened) when he was seven, and you realize that although you have been in his head and his heart for 180 pages, you don’t even know his name.  You know the name of Lettie Hempstock, who lives at the end of the lane, an 11 year old girl who claims that her duck pond is really an ocean.  You know Lettie’s name, but you don’t know what she is, and when you ask how long she has been 11, she gives you a smile but no answer.

Like Dr. Who’s TARDIS (Gaiman wrote an episode this year), Lettie’s ocean is bigger inside than it appears from without.  When he ventures in, Gaiman’s protagonist says, “I saw the world I had walked from my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.  I saw the world from above and below.  I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real.  I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.”

One of Gaiman’s numerous strengths is his ability to remember “extremes of horror and ecstasy that children experience.”  He read books as a child and realized the adult writers had forgotten.  He vowed not to, and The Ocean at the End of Lane proves that he has not.

Gaiman resists “fantasy” as a label, but for convenience I will use it to say this is one of the finest fantasies I have ever read.  In the Time interview he also said, “I’m now more famous than I’m comfortable being.”  Though I understand his concern, I have to say, “Dude, you brought it on yourself – learn to deal with it.”

Super 8: a movie review

Super 8 poster

Even if you didn’t know that Steven Spielberg was involved in the production of Super 8, 2011, you would think of him and the parallels to ET, 1982.  Both movies appeal to all ages, but center on the courage, creativity, and compassion of young people.  Best case, the adults need to be reminded of what really matters; worst case, these are the things they oppose.  Spielberg sat on the storytelling committee with director, J.J. Abams, and helped produce Super 8.  The film won numerous awards and nominations, for its special effects and the two young stars, Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning.

It is 1979 as the film opens.  Fourteen year old Joe Lamb (Courtney) mourns the death of his mother in a factory accident.  His father, Deputy Jack Lamb, blames the father of his son’s friend, Alice Dainard (Fanning), since his wife was working the shift of the elder Dainard, out with a hangover, when she died.

Meanwhile, Joe’s friend, Charles, is making a super 8 zombie movie for an international competition.  He enlists Alice as the love interest in the film, and she and Joe are soon smitten with each other.  One night they sneak out to film a scene at the station against the backdrop of a passing train.  As the camera rolls, a pickup drives onto the track and causes a major derailment.  The pickup’s driver, Dr. Woodward, their biology teacher, is badly injured, but pulls a gun and warns them to forget all they’ve seen or their parents will be killed.  As the kids drive away, an Air Force convoy arrives to secure the scene.  The convoy leader, Colonel Nelec, discovers a super 8 film cassette and sets out to find whoever made it.

Things in town start to get weird.  All the dogs run away to the next county.  Electronic devices begin to disappear.  All the engines in all the cars at a local dealership are stolen overnight.  Nelec’s forces surround the town and begin knocking at doors.  Joe and Charles sneak into Dr. Woodward’s house and discover why he was trying to derail the train.

There are plenty of nail-biting moments, and when things come out right in the end (you never really doubt it in this kind of movie), we get to see Charles’ zombie production, which is a charming ode to amateur movie making and the creativity of young people

Super 8 is well worth a viewing.

Fans of movies and fairytales will love this 1922 Cinderella (Aschenputtel), a 12 minute animated silhouette feature by Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981). Reiniger went on to create the first animated feature film in 1926. Those who appreciate the art of fantasy will want to know about Lily Wight’s blog, where so many finds like this appear.

Lily Wight

     German animator Lotte Reiniger created the first surviving full-length animated feature, The Adventures Of Prince Achmed, back in 1926.

     An enchanting collection of Reiniger’s paper silhouette Fairy Tale adaptations is now available on DVD.

     You can watch Cinderella (1922) right here…


     The Wonderful World Of Froud

     From Aliens To Vampires And Angels To Zombies

     Fantastic Fashion Fairy Tales

     Little Red Riding Hood With Christina Ricci

View original post

Authenticity and folklore

In his comment on my review of Once Upon a Time, Calmgrove zeroed in on one of author Max Luthi’s key concepts, that fairytales show us “man’s deliverance from an inauthentic existence and his commencement of a true one.” Luthi gives us story examples: “a penniless wretch becomes wealthy, a maid becomes queen…or a toad, bear, ape, or dog is transformed into a beautiful maiden or handsome youth.”

What can we make of such a statement in terms of our own lives? Is there anything we can learn from stories of toads and bears transformed?

Rumpelstiltskin by Henry Justice Ford, 1889. Public domain.

In trying to answer the question, our first hurdle is trying to figure out what an “authentic existence” might look like, a philosophical exercise right up there with defining “the true,” “the good,” or “the beautiful.” When I try to imagine “authentic” in our world, one of the first things that comes to mind is Crazy People, 1990, a movie in which Dudley Moore, as an advertising executive, is checked into an insane asylum after he suffers a nervous breakdown and begins writing truthful adds.

Truth in advertising wins Dudley Moore a straight-jacket in “Crazy People,” 1990

Fairytales mirror philosophy and religion in their concern with lives well lived, but they are much less precise in prescribing what to aim for and how to proceed. When someone achieves their happy destiny, we see outer events representing that highest good, like a royal wedding or the discovery of buried treasure, but what works for one hero or heroine may not work for others.

This observation offers a segue into the first of several attribute that fairytale heroes and heroines seem to share – they chart their own course. In Luthi’s terms, they are “wanderers” who “set forth into the unknown in search of the highest, the most beautiful, or the most valuable thing.” Most often, but not always, it is male characters who cover the greatest outer distance, but in Faerie, the unknown waits outside your door. Cinderella’s journey begins with a solitary trip every day to weep at her mother’s grave. The smallest step into the forest is fraught with danger for one who goes their own way, whether the goal is the end of the world or the prince’s ballroom.

Arthur Rackham illustration from “The White Snake”

A second attribute of successful folklore characters is kindness, at least for those creatures who turn up with guidance for the quest. It is not the kind of universal compassion espoused by religion, but is more practical and down to earth. Cinderella is kind to birds, and they always assist her, but she makes no objection when they later peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. The hero of “The White Snake,” who learns the speech of animals, goes out of his way to help ants, fish, and ravens, who will later save his life, but he doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his horse when events demand it.

According to Max Luthi, the fairy tale character’s estrangement from conventional social relations allows him or her to connect with help from unexpected quarters, with toads or foxes, crones or dwarves. Luthi often distances himself from Jungian interpretation, but not in the case of fairytale helpers. They can be viewed,not only as outer creatures, but “as forces within the soul of the individual which are at first in need of assistance but finally unfold and develop.”

A third attribute of folktale heroes and heroines is patience. Things take a long time to unfold. In the Grimm brothers version, Cinderella has no fairy godmother. Instead she plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears every day until it is grown. Only then do the tree and the dove that lives in its branches grant her wishes. In “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” a former soldier works in the devil’s kitchen for seven years, forbidden to bathe, cut his hair, his beard, or his fingernails, or wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Kitchen work,” as Robert Bly calls it, applies to both men and women in fairytales. In Iron John, he wrote, “The way down and out doesn’t require poverty, homelessness, physical deprivation, dishwasher work, necessarily, but it does seem to require a fall from status, from a human being to a spider, from a middle-class person to a derelict. The emphasis is on the consciousness of the fall.”

Fairy tale time, as both Luthi and Bly point out, is not literal time. Seven years in the kitchen might equate to several decades for the writer who has to make a living by some other means. Yet in all the stories, this tempering process is essential. Shortcuts don’t work. After seven years, even the devil is forced to keep his bargain.

Arthur Rackham, “The Goose Girl”

When I was young, I assumed the signs of an “authentic life” were visible – at a minimum, bohemian trappings were required. Now I know that such plumage is far too easy.

The courage to go one’s own way, to keep one’s own council. To be kind to the odd and despised parts of oneself and to give them a hearing. The poise and patience to allow events to unfold at their own pace rather than try to push the river. Fairy tale heroes and heroines champion themselves and their deepest desires. Their stories lead us to wonder what would happen if we follow their example. What do their footsteps look like in the 21st century?

The Psychology of Superheroes


Robin Rosenberg grew up with superhero comics. Later she shared them with her children, and after becoming a clinical psychologist, she studied them through the lens of psychology and discovered that “superhero stories are about morality and loyalty, about self-doubt and conviction of beliefs. I also saw that, like any good fiction, the sagas of superheroes bring us out of ourselves and connect us with something larger than ourselves, something more universal.”

Rosenberg published “We Need a Hero” in the current Smithsonian Magazine  The article inspired me to read The Psychology of Superheroes a collection of essays that Rosenberg edited in 2008 on what makes these caped crusaders tick.

Sometimes it seems that superheroes can’t get no satisfaction, but is that accurate?  Not according to the opening essay in the collection, “The Positive Psychology of Superheroes,” by Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park.  “One of the defining features of a superhero is an over-riding mission to serve the larger world and to defend it.  In this sense, superheroes have profoundly meaningful lives.”   

Peterson and Park assert that meaning is more important than pleasure in leading a satisfying life. That’s a good thing, because with a few exceptions, superheroes are challenged on the relationship front.  I’ve always thought it’s the flaws embodied in the secret identities of Clark Kent and Peter Parker that bonds us to these characters.  In one sense, they’re just like us, and their stories suggest that we too may choose the highroad.

Though superpowers isolate them from others, sometimes superheroes band together with superior results, according to the second essay in the collection, “The Benefits of a Group,” by Dr. Wind Goodfriend. This article may shed some light on why The Justice League of America functions more efficiently than your team at work or committees at church.

Another topic discussed in the book is the question of nurture vs. nature in the development of superhero psychology.  Superman may have his powers through genetics, how did he come to use them for altruistic rather than narrow and selfish ends?  Did he inherit those qualities too, or were they a result of his wholesome upbringing on a farm in America’s heartland?  What would have happened if his pod had landed in New York City?

Good and evil are usually clearly drawn in superhero stories, but not always. In “Anti-Heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil,” Dr. Michael Spivey and Steve Knowlton discuss the ambiguous, gray-zone nature of super anti-heroes and sympathetic villains (think of Darth Vader and Gollum).  Each of the 18 essays in The Psychology of Superheroes addresses some facet of the super-psyche that you may or may not have wondered about.

Humans have relished hero tales for millennia.  Superman joined the ranks 75 years ago, and if you’ve been to the cineplex lately, you know that his saga is going to continue this summer.  The trailer for Man of Steel 2013 zeroes in on Clark’s inner struggles to understand who he is and why he is here.  Earlier incarnations of Superman did not live in a world of such moral ambiguity and mistrust of the government, themes which place this telling squarely in the 21st century.

As The Psychology of Superheroes makes clear, what we really admire is not the superpowers but the hero, the one who overcomes their doubts and demons and then acts to make the world a better place. This book is a fascinating read in its own right and will whet your appetite for the new movie.  It will give you some new perspectives on movies you’ve seen in the past as well as the comic books that once inspired some of us to run around wearing capes made out of bedsheets.

The Annotated Wind in the Willows

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” So begins one of the great literary adventures of my life, The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame.

I’ve written about The Wind in the Willows before:  My parents read it aloud when I was little, and since then, it has been part of my life.  Now the annotated edition, which I got this month, reveals details about the text and the author that I never knew before.

The opening paragraph details the Mole’s spring cleaning.  Soon he has dust in his throat and eyes and splotches of whitewash on his fur.  Then the text says something rather strange:  “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

I’ve been known to put off spring cleaning for months, but from laziness not “divine discontent.”  As a younger reader, this phrase escaped me.  Only now do I realize how Mole’s spirit of longing belonged to the author.  I always imagined Kenneth Grahame as a country gentleman, strolling quietly by the river.  Notes in the annotated edition make clear that while this came later, for much of his life, Grahame lived with a frustrated dream of living like that.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912.  Public domain.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912. Public domain.

He knew and loved the country life, but economic necessity tied him to London.  He abandoned his dream of going to Oxford and took a post at the Bank of England.  He married late in life, and both he and his wife had health problems.  Their only son, Alastair, was born with a congenital vision defect.  One day in November, 1903, a respectably dressed man came into Grahame’s office, pulled out a revolver, and began shooting.  The man didn’t hit anyone and was later sent to an asylum, but Grahame was shaken.  Already a private man, he kept even more to himself, his home, and vacations near the sea.

Grahame was already a popular author of several books of essays, but he stopped writing entirely between the years of 1903 and 1908.  Because of his wife’s health problems, Kenneth was Alastair’s primary care giver.  In the evenings, he made up stories about a mole, a toad, and various other animals, who lived beside a river.  A governess would later recall hearing Alastair ask questions and make suggestions; the two of them worked the stories together.

Alastair Grahame, 1907

Father and son spent the summer of 1907 apart.  Kenneth sent Alastair  a series of 15 letters which continued the tales and became the seeds of chapters for the book he would write the following year.  The letters are included in the annotated edition.  Also in this edition is an introduction by Brian Jacques, contemporary author of the Redwall series of animal stories.  Jacques lets us know what he thinks of the editors and agents who hesitated in printing The Wind in the Willows.  He has nothing good to say about people so short of imagination that they could not imagine a toad disguised as a washerwoman.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

An enthusiastic recommendation from President Theodore Roosevelt helped Grahame’s publishing efforts and the book has been in print ever since.

Some have suggested that Wind in the Willows is two books in one.  The madcap adventures of toad seem geared to please children – they were Alastair’s favorites – while other sections explore deeper emotions like homesickness, fear, wanderlust, and of course the theme of divine discontent.  This takes center stage in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in which the animals, searching for a lost baby otter, encounter the ancient god Pan.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Frontispiece to a 1913 edition by Paul Bransom. Public domain.

Grahame first wrote about Pan in 1891 in an essay that appeared in his first book, The Pagan Papers 1893.  His longing for unspoiled nature on the eve of the 20th century was widespread in Victorian and Edwardian society.

As Mole and Rat approached the god, they were seized with the kind of awe and fear that scriptures around the world describe when people encounter angels.  When the vision ended, the animals “stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost.”

Then a little breeze “blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion.  For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping:  the gift of forgetfulness.  Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of the little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.”

Life brought less solace for Grahame. His son, Alastair, who inspired the stories, was a budding artist and creator of his own literary magazine, but he was plagued with emotional problems. He enrolled at Eton but had to leave for this reason. He went up to Oxford in 1918, but didn’t do well with exams. On top of this, numbers of WWI veterans were returning to college, bringing the focus and maturity they had learned in the trenches.

In May, 1920, Alastair Grahame asked for a glass of wine after dinner, then walked to Port Meadow, outside Oxford, where a number of railroad lines merged. During the night, he was hit by a train and died. His father wrote that his vision problems might have led to disorientation.  The autopsy report suggested he lay on the tracks and waited for a train.

The Grahames were devastated. They spent the next four years in Italy. When they returned to England, they moved to a town beside the Thames where they lived for the rest of their lives. Kenneth was able to spend his days by the river, as he had always dreamed of doing, but the joy he once had making stories for his son must have been absent.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Some biographers have suggested that Grahame, good at everything he tried, must have been disappointed with his son. Annie Gauger, editor of the Annotated edition says no.  She includes letters and other material to demonstrate that The Wind in the Willows was a joint creation of father and son.  Since the stories were first told out loud, I have to agree – from experience I know that oral storytelling is a complex dance between teller and audience.  Out of their limitations, their longings, and divine discontent, Kenneth and Alastair Grahame  gave readers over the last hundred years a world of peace and friendship, far from “the wide world” trials, where if you listen, you can sometimes make out the music of the gods of nature on the wind.

Cloud Atlas: a movie review

Synopsis by author David Mitchell: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”


One viewing isn’t sufficient for a comprehensive “review” of a movie like this.  Like Roger Ebert, who called Cloud Atlas “one of the most ambitious films ever made,” I knew before it was half over that I wanted to watch it again.  Different critics have praised and panned the movie.  I want to offer a brief synopsis and weigh in with a solid two thumbs up.

It’s harder to move around in time in movies than in books. Inception 2010, notably altered the linear flow of time, with four levels of dreaming that unfolded simultaneously, yet fundamentally it was structured as a frame-tale.  Scheherazade did the same thing centuries ago in the The Arabian Nights.

British author, David Mitchell tried something more ambitious in his novel, Cloud Atlas 2004.  Six stories take place in different times and places, with implications that past, present, and future interconnect in ways that are too complex for a linear narrative.  For one thing, Mitchell says that the main characters in the different tales that bear an unusual birthmark are reincarnations of the same character.  Somni~451, the clone-turned-visionary in the dystopian future scene voices what I take to be the core theme of the movie:  “Separation is an illusion.  All our lives are interconnected.”

Counter to what I expected, the different stories were not hard to follow.  Anyone interested in fresh ways of imagining novels and movies should not miss Cloud Atlas.  I’m pretty sure you’ll want to see it more than once.